What should one teach when teaching students grammar?

by Mr. Sheehy

When I started out as a copy editor, I realized that most of what I knew about grammar I knew instinctively. That is, I knew how most–certainly not all–of the grammar things worked; I simply didn’t know what they were called.

Even now I’d be hard-pressed to tell you what a nominative absolute is, I think that the word “genetive” sounds vaguely smutty, and I certainly don’t know, or care to know, how to diagram a sentence.

I hope I’m not shocking you.

But at a certain point I figured that if I was going to be fixing grammar for a living, I might do well to learn a little something about it, and that’s precisely what I did: I learned a little something about it. As little as I needed to. I still, at the slightest puzzlement, run back to my big fat stylebooks, and likely always will.

I do believe, though, that if as a writer you know how to do a thing, it’s not terribly important that you know what it’s called.

I think Benjamin Dreyer’s point here is a helpful reminder for those of us who long for  our students to know grammar. Dreyer knows more about this stuff than anyone not named Mrs. Dussault*–he wrote a book about it–and he doesn’t consider himself a terminology expert. This raises a question of distinction: Do our students not know grammar, or do they not know the terminology? My students who are native English speakers all sound like native English speakers, which suggests they know English grammar. If knowledge of the parts of speech and the sentence is essential for literacy, then they write remarkably well. But if it’s not–and their skill suggests it isn’t–then maybe it’s not so crucial that I make them experts in identifying direct objects and predicate nominatives.

Granted, I think knowing the difference between direct objects and predicate nominatives is helpful even if one can’t name the terms–but that’s the teaching challenge: how can I convey the information so students learn the grammatical skill without bogging them down with the grammatical terminology?

What I don’t think is the answer is inventing new terms. Calling clauses “branches” doesn’t help students when the next teacher calls them clauses. But trying to reduce the number of terms we use can help; I have found teaching commas, semi-colons, and colons relatively well requires only one technical term: the independent clause. With it, students can master most uses of common punctuation.


*Mrs. Dussault was my 7th and 8th grade English teacher. More than 90% of what I know about grammar I learned from her.